Sunak’s national service policy swamped by cynicism and incompetence


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Good morning. Out of the six elections this century, four (2001, 2005, 2010 and 2019) have played out in the way the polls suggested on the day the election was called.

Although 2010 was a surprise to the betting markets and many pundits, it shouldn’t have been: the Conservative lead was not large enough to be certain of making the gains the party needed from a very low base in 2005 to govern alone.

In the other two elections (2015 and 2017) the result on the day defied the poll predictions. Rishi Sunak’s campaign is an unusual chimera of David Cameron’s 2015 campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 one.

What happened in 2015? All the evidence suggests that Cameron and George Osborne had the right political strategy all the way along and the opinion polls were simply wrong. After 2012, the Labour party had underperformed in local elections, the 2014 European elections and by-elections.

A good example of that is the Newark by-election back in 2014 which was the first by-election I ever covered. (The Telegraph had sent me. Labour’s Chris Bryant, who had the thankless task of running the by-election, very kindly bought me a coffee). The East Midlands seat ought to have seen significant challenge from Labour, if the polls indicating it was on course to return to government were to be believed. But the party finished third behind Ukip.

These days, swings well above what Labour needed to win in Newark have become so routine that the Blackpool South by-election — showing a 26 per cent swing from Conservatives to Labour — was barely treated as news.

One problem with Sunak’s election bid thus far, is that the presidential parts of it resemble the successful campaigns fought by Cameron, who in both 2010 and 2015 was the most popular, or at worst the least unpopular, party leader in the UK.

Fighting a Cameron-style campaign when you are in fact so unpopular that, depending on the pollster, you are either matching or exceeding the low approval ratings experienced by John Major in 1997 or Corbyn in 2019 is a story with only one ending.

What happened in 2017? The Labour party’s weak poll position was backed up by the opinion polls. Something changed between the election being called on April 18 and the government losing its majority on June 8 2017.

Elections are multivariate events, and it is therefore hard to confidently say what really drove the 2017 election. Three things clearly played a part: the final shape of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the condition of the UK’s public services, and changing opinions of Theresa May and Corbyn. (If old elections are your bag, do give this excellent blog from the time by the British Election Study’s team a look.)

But for our purposes, let’s assume that the biggest driver was what Corbyn and his team actually did and was within their control. This lens is relevant to assessing Sunak’s wizard wheeze to bring back national service.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

Salience matters

Rishi Sunak’s proposal to bring back compulsory national service for all 18-year-olds has two legs. The first, which would involve military service for a small minority, was rejected, just two days before it was introduced, by the defence minister Andrew Murrison. As we report here:

Murrison warned of a hit to morale, headcount and resources if “potentially unwilling national service recruits” were introduced alongside Britain’s professional armed forces. Murrison, in a written answer in parliament on Thursday, said there were no plans to revive national service, which was scrapped in 1960.

“If potentially unwilling national service recruits were to be obliged to serve alongside the professional men and women of our armed forces, it could damage morale, recruitment and retention and would consume professional military and naval resources,” Murrison said.

In addition, Sunak’s spokesperson rubbished the idea back in January. The other leg is a community volunteering scheme — similar to David Cameron’s National Citizen Service, which had its funding reduced by two-thirds back in 2022 by the then-chancellor, Sunak.

Now the two are the opening offer in Sunak’s re-election bid — and today the prime minister goes further, saying that businesses would be encouraged to hire candidates who have completed the military option over those who do not.

Which are we to believe? That Sunak and his ministers have experienced a conversion on a par with Saul on the road to Damascus in the past two days, or that this proposal is designed to coax voters who backed the Tories in 2019 but are now backing Reform, or not voting at all? Call me unduly cynical, but I’m going with option two.

In that respect, it recalls the Jeremy Corbyn campaigns in 2017 and 2019, in which strategists hoped that rolling out popular policies would turn around their polling position. Along with commitments to spend more on the police, the NHS, on schools and on scrapping tuition fees, the centrepiece was the nationalisation of large parts of industry.

I’m not going to waste your time or Georgina’s in digging out a chart showing that the NHS is important to most UK voters. Here’s the key chart from Ipsos’s 2023 survey on the popularity of nationalising various industries:

Other pollsters reveal similar figures on this question. Unfortunately, Ipsos has only done one poll relatively recently about bringing back national service. It’s a fun exercise to demonstrate why question design matters:

However, most neutrally worded polling gets you something close to that. JL Partners, which has done the most recent poll on this at the start of the month, found 42 per cent in favour and 34 per cent in opposition.

There are three important things to note here: the first, of course, is that a 42-34 per cent proposition is very, very different from a 60-20 per cent one. Second, even in proposing policies that commanded much higher levels of public support than bringing back national service, Corbyn’s strategy was still not enough for him to win power in 2017 or to avert landslide defeat in 2019.

One obstacle here is that these policies are mostly “low salience” — although people agree with them, they don’t care all that much about them. This is, again, even more of a problem for Sunak’s strategy than it was for Corbyn’s. There is no poll, and no scrap of data, not one conversation I have had while travelling the country covering elections to suggest to me that bringing back national service commands any support or interest.

The third important issue is that Corbyn did actually support nationalisation. Indeed, one thing that I think went wrong for Corbyn in 2019 is that in 2017 he was able to present himself as an authentic politician, unlike the others, but by 2019, he not only looked very much like a run-of-the-mill politician but was also record-breakingly unpopular. (Until, that is, Sunak managed to match or, depending on the pollster, exceed his figures.)

Sunak’s national service commitment is, I think, far too nakedly and obviously a sop to voters who think the government has failed on immigration (the most important issue among the Reform voters and non-voters the Conservatives need to coax back to the fold) and crime (the next most important issue for this group). But bringing back national service is not the third or even the fourth area these voters care most about.

It’s not just how the policies themselves poll, it’s also how they reflect on the party, and how they are interpreted. Not only do so few people care about this issue, but quite frankly, the national service proposal is coming under fire from the organisations that would need to run it. That the prime minister’s position on it has changed so quickly further punctures this policy. This all means that I think any benefit among the 42 per cent of people who support the idea of national service but don’t, in all honesty, care, is going to be outweighed by the perception of cynicism and incompetence that it leaves.

Tory unhappiness, plus the sense in Labour that it can’t quite believe its luck at the start of Sunak’s campaign, are only going to increase if this kind of thing is what we have to expect over the next six weeks.

Now try this

I mostly listened to David Guetta’s Nothing But The Beat while writing my column this week, which you can read here or in today’s FT.

Top stories today

Below is the Financial Times’ live-updating UK poll-of-polls, which combines voting intention surveys published by major British pollsters. Visit the FT poll-tracker page to discover our methodology and explore polling data by demographic including age, gender, region and more.

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